Member Trip Report



Adventuring Across Mexico - page 1 of 2

Copper Canyon and Whale Watching

February 12 - 22, 2012

Trip Leaders: Dick and Judy Opsahl.  Author: Dick Opsahl.

Participants:  New Mexico: Evan Rose, Felicia Orth, Ernie Newman, Susan Newman, Lia Perry, Sherry Hardage. California: Dick Opsahl, Judy Opsahl, Ann Nitzan, Pat Skillman. Connecticut: Charlie DeWeese, Rhonda DeWeese.

It took more than a year of planning to put this one together. I first learned about Nichols Expeditions in 2009 during a Los Alamos Mountaineers trip to explore Arches National Park at Moab, UT. While there I visited the Poison Spider bike shop and found an interesting brochure about sea kayaking in the Sea of Cortez. I quickly put together a Mountaineers trip with Nichols Expeditions kayaking from Loreto to La Paz. It was a 2 week trip during November 2010 involving paddling about 150 miles from Loreto to La Paz in the Sea of Cortez. We camped each night on the beach. Things worked out remarkably well: Great guides, super equipment, wonderful food and endless beer. On the trip we often spoke about doing another different trip--one with focus on seeing whales, riding on the famous railroad and exploring Copper Canyon. So I contacted Judy Nichols and worked out a plan to do that kind of trip sometime in February 2012.

On this trip, we started in Chihuahua, spending a day and a half there exploring the history and culture. A highlight was the Pancho Villa home and museum. While the original plan had been to use the public busses to get to Creel, Judy Nichols found that her hotel friends could easily get us a private van which greatly eased the logistics of moving luggage, getting to and from bus stations etc. Our hotel was the San Felipe, a B&B which offered personal attention and free wireless internet. They even prepared a fantastic home made dinner in additions to the breakfasts. Our guide, for Chihuahua sightseeing and the trip to Creel was Eduardo Villaboba, who was (as were all our guides) extremely knowledgeable and helpful. The private van transport made possible a visit to the Mennonite community located between Chihuahua and Creel. We visited this German speaking community with a our guide and were able to purchase some of their cheese and excellent cookies. Dick was actually able to chat them up a bit in German.

This was our adventuresome and very handsome group of fellow travellers!

From the Mennonites we moved on to Creel which is the usual jumping off place to go down to Copper Canyon. We stayed for a night at the Sierra Lodge which is unusual for it’s complete lack of electric power although it did have indoor plumbing and lots of hot water and heat during the cold night from pot-bellied stoves. Our new guide, Noel, who would be with us for the next five days, took us hiking and driving through the top of the Canyons country and we learned something of the Tarahumara people and their life. Meals were outstanding. Early morning the next day we boarded two vans for the descent down to the bottom of the Copper Canyon.

The trip down to the bottom of the canyon was special. We were told that it takes most of the day, and that we would have a picnic lunch near the rim of the canyon. We expected to eat a burrito at some view point. To our surprise, before getting to the lip of the canyon we suddenly pulled off of the main road and stopped for lunch in the forest.

Two men from the Sierra Lodge had set up tables and chairs along with white tablecloths, complete with wine and beer while a hot lunch was being cooked over a campfire. After lunch, we got back into the vans for the real descent down the winding one lane dirt road (with sheer drop-offs on one side) to the bottom. Our 2 vans were equipped with 2 riding seats on top with tie in seat and shoulder belts, like a fighter aircraft. During any slow part of the trip we took turns riding on top. Super views were the reward and even rainbows at times. Usually with 2 or 3 of us in the on top seats. Near the top there was a stop to drop off some of us to walk or run down and be picked up 1/2 hour later. The road was so bumpy and twisty that the vans could not make much more speed than running.

Arrival at the colonial era Riverside Lodge at Batopilas was incredible. The place could have easily been part of a movie set; full of colorful tile patterns, fancy carved wood doors and dozens of tiny passages leading here and there. A huge open top courtyard was the centerpiece. This would be our base for 3 days at the bottom of the canyon. In town, it was even fun to say hi to the military and police who hung around on street corners with their AK-47s aimed at their toes.

The Riverside Lodge at Batopilas was incredible!

We had arranged for a second guide in Batopilas who would lead the more strenuous hikes. Those who wanted an easier time could go with the normal guide. We split about 50-50. I always took the strenuous option. On the first hike day we loaded into a van for the serious hike and drove up up up for an hour on steep mountain roads to the hike start. Manuelo, our guide, said that we could cover much more ground by getting a high start. Views were always spectacular. Another big bonus for me was being able to use my lousy Spanish for a whole day. Manuelo spoke no English and the group depended on me to do the English translation. After the almost 20 mile hike we got back to the Riverside Lodge. Judy took a gentler hike, 8 miles round trip to a Cathedral in a remote Canyon town. Then both groups compared notes and tales over Pacifica beer in the patio of the hotel. As it turned out, we had a professional yoga teacher with us, Rhonda led a 1/2 hour session which had all of us, including our 70 year old Spanish speaking guide, stretching and positioning on the stone floor of the inside courtyard. More beer.

The next day, both hikes were along a river beds in Batopilas and neighboring canyons. The easier hike, about 8 miles round trip, went to a ruin of a mine and an early mansion, with return along the irrigation ditch by the river. The longer hike, which seven of us took, went deep into a remote canyon beginning with a van ride to the hike start. It involved numerous stream crossings on shaky bridges, hopping from rock to rock and, at times, wading. At Manuelo’s suggestion, we brought along sandals for the river crossings. En route, we passed several rotary sluices used to concentrate gold bearing ore for shipment by mule out of the canyon. The home made rotary sluices are water powered and concentrate ore so that a 100 pound sack of concentrate might have 1 gram of recoverable gold. As the drought over the past few years has essentially "killed" marijuana production, sluicing for gold has become more popular. We got to meet and talk with one of the miners. We had lunch in a remote village, before hiking back through more intricate and interesting mining country. When we reached a real road, three of the group decided to run 4 miles back to the hotel (maybe to avoid crossing another shaky bridge). Judy and I and Felicia Orth opted for crossing the bridge and meeting our ride. 16 miles for us; 20 for those who ran back.

Dick with a fully armed Mexican soldier.

After almost 3 days of hiking and glorious eating we concluded with a festive evening of margaritas and dancing to a local band. We finally had to board the vans for the trip out and back up the serpentine road returning to the rustic Sierra Lodge with pot belly wood stoves, excellent food, hikes and lots of hot water. Again we took turns riding on top. As we rounded a tight hairpin we were stopped by someone in "full" regalia. Full black face mask, bullet proof vest, pistol and the necessary AK-47 aimed at his toe. A few nearly passed out, but fortunately I could tell by the neat outfit and shoes that he was army and not bandito. It turned out that there was a large army contingent going down to the bottom and they could pass traffic only here and there. We had to back down almost 1/2 mile to get to a passable spot. As the full army unit came by they even had a third world style pick up; set up with the machine gun on top. Some excitement. I was doubly sure that they were "good" guys when one of them took pictures of us using his MAC 4S iPhone and iCloud. I was on top of the van.

We left early from the no electric Sierra Lodge for the trip to Divisadero where we would board the El Chepe Copper Canyon Railroad. Divisidero is on a high rim of the canyon with spectacular views. Before getting onto the train we had another mission--to ride on the almost new cable car down across the canyon and back. The installation was done a few years ago by the Swiss firm Doppelmayer. It was set up every bit as a Swiss engineered project. Everything perfect. The car took 60 people for about an hour total with half an hour at the lower landing point. After this ride we went to the train station where we said goodbye to, Noel, our guide of the last five days, and boarded the train bound for El Fuerte close to the port on the Sea of Cortez where we would board the boat across to the Baja Peninsula.

Cable car we took across a beautiful section of the canyon.

The train ride met our expectations and much more. Our first class car had view seats for all of us and was sparsely filled so that we could easily move from one side to the other for the views. Views were sensational. We went through one tunnel after another - probably about 50 on this section. BTW difficulties in construction resulted in the line not being completed until the 1960s. The ride is easily the most scenic train ride in the Western hemisphere. A dining car with full meals added to our train experience. The train moved slowly along the single track making photos easy. It was an hour or more late into El Fuerte. There was some apprehension in the group about our hotel pick-up, since the hotel was about 10 miles distant. No problem I assured them and, sure enough, a bus was waiting for us as we pulled in to the station.

El Fuerte had a marvelous hotel for us and things to do during the next morning and afternoon before departing to catch the overnight boat to the Baja. Free, fast, wireless internet was everywhere, food scrumptious and endless hot water. Even free Mexico telephoning. Dick had to make some complex fight changes for 4 of us and change an Avis reservation. In the morning and early afternoon we hiked around the beautiful colonial city and participated in their river raft tour and visits to the local Indian villages.

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